It is about 3 pm as 50-year-old Louise De Marco Vijoena starts tidying the inside of the half-cut jojo tank. She and her fiance, Joan Jaque, call the tank home just off Denne and Springs Road in Brakpan Town, East of Johannesburg. Next to them is a tree.
Inside the jojo tank there is hardly enough room to fit Louise and her partner, but it is all they have. Jaque brought the container one afternoon from a small dump where he gathers recycling material. He cut out one end to make a door and there are no windows. The container was not the same as their old five-person tent. Metro police took their tent away together with their other stuff in April just before the winter season kicked in. They were told to move away from the area because it was not authorized for anyone to put up a tent and live there. But with no other place to go, they stayed.
“This tank home sheltered us throughout the winter,” Louise says.
Louise decorates the inside of their home well. In the middle is a mattress and some blankets. On the left-hand side next to the door are her makeup kit and a bible. On the end facing the door is a small table with flowers to decorate the room.
“A woman must always have her combs and make-up handy,” Louise says.
She and her fiance have been homeless for five years.
Louise, who suffers from Lymph cancer, likes relaxing in the shade under the tree from morning until the afternoon. She cannot afford to travel to Pretoria up North for treatment. Her fiance goes out to look for recycling material at about 8 am. She cleans their place before he returns so that they can go out together to look for food. Sometimes they go to the robots to ask for handouts, but because they hardly get much, they also eat from the dustbins. When they are feeling up to it they walk all the way to the Brakpan Town Centre to eat at a soup kitchen.
Jaque believes that a man’s house is his castle . . . .
“Police took away our tent and our things, we may not have much but we value the little we have because we work for it just like everyone else. I don’t know why it’s hard for them to understand.” Jaque lost his occasional boilermaker job due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is now unable to look for another job because all apprenticeship certificates were lost when their stuff was confiscated by police.
“Our wish is to buy our own house and get married, but living on the streets has made our lives difficult, ” Louise says.
I met Louise one afternoon while driving past. When I saw the tents and tank, my journalistic self decided to investigate. To my amazement, I discovered that people actually lived there. Louise was very welcoming and apologized profusely for not having any food or beverages to offer. Chuckling, she even apologized for not having enough room in the jojo tank to accommodate a visitor like me. With tears in her eyes, she told the story of losing their tent, like so many of their neighbors.
Their neighbors managed to find other tents after the first ones were taken away. I decided to speak to the neighbors, too.
Jack and Zelna Vanderwlat live directly opposite, in a medium-sized tent. They have lived there for four years and never had children. Not having children was a relief, otherwise they would all be living together in the small tent, with nothing to eat, Zelna explains. This couple also lost documents and other possessions when their things were confiscated.
Vanderwlat says he was severely affected by cement dust at a factory where he used to work. As a result he got an operation in the stomach a few years ago and now earns a disability grant. Because the disability grant is not enough, they spend most of their time at a traffic light in Brakpan town asking for handouts from passing motorists.
“Sometimes we stand at the robots the whole day and get nothing,” says Vanderwlat. “Life out here is not easy.”
“The government should give us a piece of land where we can put up our tents and live if they cannot build us houses,” says Zelna, who could not apply for the unemployment grant because she lost her ID. She says renewing the ID is not easy because she also lost her birth certificate.
After meeting the Vanderwalts, I visited next door. Here I met Damien De Marco Vijoen, Louise’s adopted dad.
Damien lives with his husband, Andries, in their tent. The couple has been living on the street for over seven years. They too live off asking for money at the traffic lights. Damien asked Louise and her partner to come and live close to him when life became hard for them.
Damien’s husband goes out most of the time while he stays at home due to leukemia. They barely make enough money to live on from street handouts. They mostly live on bread and sometimes buy a cold drink when they manage to make extra money.
He too makes little or nothing at all at the robots. He believes that the government should build houses for all homeless people.
“Our constitution says everyone has a right to a home. Our government is failing to provide homes for us, that is why we are on the streets.”
I immediately asked them whether or not they were getting any help, if not from the government then maybe from civil organizations. They mentioned RATA, an organization that runs the soup kitchen. The crew gave me directions to the place. I decided to go and find out more about the work being done by the organization. Waving goodbye I left and promised to visit again sometime.
In the RATA office I met Pieter Shriber, a social worker. He explains that the RATA soup kitchen in the Brakpan City Centre fed all vulnerable persons and was not limited to the homeless. While the organization did not have stats on the number of homeless people living in and around Brakpan, it fed up to 150 vulnerable people per day.
“Our target is not only to feed the homeless but all people who are in need of food, therefore we have no record of how many homeless people we cater for. We have noted an increase in people who are in need of food since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people in Brakpan can only afford to pay rent with little left to buy food. Such people come to our soup kitchen and we also cater for them,” says Shriber.
To think that Brakpan was once a prosperous mining town, one that bears historic significance in so many ways. Such a town now has some of the poorest people. Surely more could have been done to ensure that its people have access to shelter at least. Better facilities should be in place for vulnerable members of the community. Instead the town has been stung by high levels of poverty. It was unbelievably upsetting.
Shriber spoke of an event that RATA organized in September in partnership with the Devoted Street Ministry to give the homeless in Brakpan a street shower. They plan to arrange more in the future.
He mentioned how people from other towns who find themselves stranded on the streets end up coming to their kitchen. He says while there are no homeless shelters in Brakpan, many resort to the streets or sleeping in abandoned buildings.
My heart melted at how many people in our city have succumbed to such poverty. A few years back it was rare to find people begging on the streets or being called homeless. So much has changed since then. The once clean City is now cluttered in litter. Right next to a heap of litter it is not a surprise to find a homeless person, either fast asleep or waiting to sort recycling material to sell in nearby firms.
In the Johannesburg City Center along Nugget Street I met two friends, Sifiso Williams and Mesina Sithole.
Fighting for dustbins
Sithole, originally from Masvingo in Zimbabwe, came to South Africa in 2002. He lived in one of the buildings in Joburg at first relying on buying and selling goods in the City Center to make a living. In 2014 he found himself on the streets, unable to cope. Every morning he wakes up to look for scrap and recycling material to raise money for food. During the day he pauses to inject himself with insulin as he suffers from sugar diabetes.
“Sometimes it’s even difficult to get something to eat, going hungry is not good for me because I am diabetic,” says Mesina. In 2014 he used to go to the Central Methodist Church to get food and a place to sleep, but says the place has now been closed.
He says hustling for recycling material in Joburg is difficult because there are people who claim ownership of the dustbins and can even stab them. Here people claim to own dustbins on a finders-keepers basis. The best thing he can do is to stay away from someone else’s territory to avoid getting seriously hurt.
“A friend of mine almost died in 2020 for taking food from someone else’s dustbin, now we stay away from dustbins and scrounge on the streets lest someone claims it as theirs.”
Mesina says he values a sofa that he got from people living in a flat nearby; he guards it with his life.
“At night I just lie on the sofa looking at the sky, I do not sleep for long. In the middle of the night I lie awake thinking about my children who are in Zimbabwe.” His wish is to raise enough money to go home to his children.
When Mesina mentioned his children, I immediately thought of my own back home. Looking forward to seeing them in the evening after work keeps me strong throughout the day. What of him not seeing his children for years, that must surely be painful. I imagined myself in the same situation. To think that I had a warm bed to go back home to and that I would eat a nice warm meal before going to bed, yet this man had nothing. It broke my heart. Would I cope if I were to find myself in the same situation? I questioned myself but dreaded the answer. I would probably fail to cope, came the answer.
The City of Johannesburg acknowledged a noted increase of homelessness in the City due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nthatisi Modingoane, Spokesperson for the City of Johannesburg, says while there is no specific scientific data on the number of people living and working on the streets due to their mobile nature, a data estimate had been made available through the work of the Displaced Persons Unit. He mentioned several initiatives that are available for those living and working on the streets of Johannesburg who are willing to be assisted. For example, the City offers Development Programmes such as Outreach and Community Awareness Programme, Family Reunification Programme, Drug rehabilitation preparatory and placement in out and in-patient treatment centers, Empowerment /Skills Development Programme, Shelter Management and Placement Programme, and Psycho-social support programme and Intersectoral collaborations. There are also organizations such as Zimbabwe Isolated Women in South Africa (ZIWISA), which partners with other organizations to feed about 200 homeless people in the Johannesburg City Centre on a monthly basis. The organizations also noted an increase in homelessness in the City over the years due to evictions, job losses and heightened poverty due to the pandemic and the high cost of living.
After leaving Mesina and Williams, I reflected back on Brakpan. I thought of the Viljoens and Vanderwlats. Their plight was no better. I realized then that homelessness has become a new pandemic. At that very moment I understood just how difficult life was for homeless people living on the streets in different parts of Johannesburg. One thing for sure, from that day I learnt to value even the smallest of things because there are people out there who have nothing but are living life the best they can.
25 November, 2022